Ambassador Of Laughter: Danny Kaye

He was UNICEF's first Goodwill Ambassador.

Danny Kaye was a multi-talented entertainer and humanitarian who dedicated his life to brightening the lives of others.

Born David Daniel Kaminsky to Ukrainian Jewish immigrant parents in Brooklyn, 1911, his first language was Yiddish.

From a young age, Danny had a knack for making people smile. At age five he started performing publicly at Jewish weddings.

His mother died when he was in his early teens, and soon after that he dropped out of school.

After a succession of odd jobs, Danny was hired as a tummler at a Borscht Belt resort in the Catskills. Tummler is a Yiddish word describing a jester who is hired to amuse guests with impromptu funny antics.

Danny’s success as a tummler led to several years on the Vaudeville circuit, including an extended tour in Asia, where he developed keen pantomime skills in order to communicate.

Danny debuted on Broadway in 1939. His breakthrough role came in 1941, playing a flamboyant fashion photographer in Lady in the Dark. The show-stopping number was “Tchaikovsky” by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, in which Danny sang the names of 50 Russian composers in 39 seconds.

Audiences fell in love with Danny Kaye. He was a comedian, actor, singer, dancer, and musician. He was known for his highly expressive face, rapid fire delivery, and physical comedy.

Studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn wanted Danny to get a nose job so he wouldn’t look so Jewish, but Danny refused.

Much of Danny’s material was written by his wife, Sylvia Fine, a fellow Brooklynite who was nominated for two Oscars for her songwriting.

Danny starred in 17 movies and several TV shows. He was a top-selling recording artist, hosted the Academy Awards, and performed for adoring crowds including the British Royal Family.

In 1949, Danny became UNICEF’s first Goodwill Ambassador, and thereby set the precedent for a celebrity to be the public face of a charitable organization.

The amount of good work that has emerged from that genesis is immeasurable.

For almost 40 years, Danny himself traveled the world, entertaining audiences and raising money to help children.

He was also a strong supporter of Israel, and visited the country several times, appearing at kibbutzim and hospitals.

Wherever he went, Danny brought with him an infectious, gleeful zaniness. He crawled on the floor to connect with children, danced with lepers, and accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of UNICEF.

Danny died in 1987, at age 76.

For helping needy children while entertaining the world, we honor Danny Kaye as this week’s Thursday Hero.

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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